This Week’s Movies

No End in Sight, Rafael, ongoing. You may think you know how badly the administration bungled the war in Iraq, but Charles Ferguson‘s documentary tells the story so carefully, so dispassionately, and so authoritatively that you’re awed by the enormity of these people’s incompetence and the tragedy of its results. And you feel in your gut not only that today’s situation is hopeless, but that it didn’t have to be this way. Most Iraq war documentaries focus on the regular folks caught in the war, but Ferguson tells most of the story through the people who ran the occupation during its first few months, such as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former Ambassador-to-Iraq Barbara Bodine. No End in Sight is easily be the best documentary of the year so far, as well as the most depressing. Click here for a full review.

Stardust, Presidio, ongoing. Magic. Every positive implication of that word applies to Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel. No attempt to describe the plot can do it justice, so let me just say it concerns a callow youth (Charlie Cox), a fallen star (Claire Danes), an evil witch temporarily restored to her youthful beauty (Michelle Pfeiffer), seven evil princes, and a flamingly gay pirate (Robert De Niro). Like Princess Bride, Stardust manages to mix silly humor with likable (I wouldn’t go so far as to call them realistic) characters and thrilling fantasy swashbuckling. Easily the best action film I’ve seen this year.

Le Doulos, Castro, opening Friday for limited, 1-week run. Why have I never seen a French film noir before? True, Americans invented the genre, but the French named it. Le Doulos doesn’t add anything really new and exciting to the genre (besides some brief nudity–something that wasn’t allowed on American screens in 1962), but it’s a darkly fun story of double-crosses and quadruple-crosses amongst hardened criminals. The story confused me a few times, but it all comes together in some surprising ways at the end. Presented in a new 35mm print.

Dial “M” for Murder, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. John Ford never made a 3D movie. Neither did Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, or Charlie Chaplin. But Alfred Hitchcock did–the only director in his class to try the short-lived medium. Dial M isn’t great Hitchcock–it’s pretty much a straight adaptation of a stage play–but it’s a good play and Hitchcock knew what to do with it. Forced against his will to use the new-fangled double-lens camera, Hitchcock pretty much ignored the obvious 3D effects popular at the time. But when he finally throws something at the camera, he knows exactly what he’s doing. Unfortunately, the Stanford will not present the movie in 3D.

High and Low, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:30. After his two great action comedies (Yojimbo and Sanjuro) and before his last black and white historical epic (Red Beard), Akira Kurosawa made one of the best crime thrillers of the 1960’s. Toshiro Mifune (who else?) stars as a successful businessman who thinks he’s off the hook when a kidnapper snatches the wrong boy, leaving the businessman’s son safe. But the kidnapper still insists that the ransom (large enough to destroy Mifune’s tenuous hold on his company) be paid, forcing the man into a moral dilemma. Can he let another man’s son die for his career? Most of High and Low takes place in a single living room, and Kurosawa uses the wide, Tohoscope frame brilliantly in the confined space.

Mafiosa, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. I laughed many times, often with hearty enthusiasm, during this rediscovered “classic– 1962 Italian comedy. But I also spent too much time wondering when it was going to get funny, or at least interesting, again. The best moments come early, with the resulting culture shock when the factory manager protagonist (the great comic actor Alberto Sordi) brings his blonde wife and children to his native Sicily–a place that appears only slightly more civilized than Borat’s Kazakhstan. But director Alberto Lattuada and his five credited writers fail to either consistently keep the comic pace or layer in enough reality to hold our interest when the humor slacks off. And when Mafioso takes a serious turn in the third act, that lack of reality is nearly fatal.

La vie en rose, 4Star, opening Friday. Early in this Edith Piaf biopic, a hunched, aged-before-her-time Piaf walks up to a recording studio microphone. She looks bored and mildly annoyed. When she starts singing in that incredible voice, she still looks bored and annoyed, her facial expression contrasting sharply with her soaring vocals. I knew then that La Vie En Rose wasn’t going to be a happy film about the redemption of art. Marion Cotillard gives one of cinema’s great performances as Piaf, whose short life–at least in writer/director Olivier Dahan’s view–was about as miserable as a life can get. Horrendous childhood, bad luck, and her own selfish and unpleasant personality hurt her at every turn. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it is also impossible to ignore. Great songs, too.

Ratatouille, Elmwood, opening Friday. Brad Bird keeps proving himself the most original, talented, and interesting animator since Chuck Jones. While there’s nothing really original about building a cartoon around sympathetic, anthropomorphic rodents (just ask Walt Disney), Bird does something totally different. He gives us the unpleasant, relatively realistic image of rats in the kitchen–he even lets our skin crawl at the spectacle–but he still gets us rooting for the rat. And for the hapless, human chef-in-training who intentionally sneaks a rat into a gourmet restaurant. The animation is, as you’d expect from Pixar, technically perfect, but you don’t really notice it except as an afterthought. You’re too caught up in the story to notice how it was made.

Sicko, Parkway, opening Friday. It’s probably impossible to review Sicko objectively. If you agree with Michael Moore on the subject at hand, you’re going to like the film. If you don’t, you won’t. So let me begin by saying that I’m in favor of universal healthcare, and find the American system of treating the sick a national disgrace. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with unquestioned praise for Cuba–a totalitarian dictatorship without the free press necessary to question government statistics and representations. As a movie, Sicko entertains as it educates, enrages, and rouses the rabble. Yes, Moore could have made a stronger case if he had honestly reported the problems of the Canadian, British, and French healthcare systems while showing their superiority (if he asked anyone what they pay in taxes, it didn’t make the final cut), and if he had left Cuba out entirely. A year ago, An Inconvenient Truth proved that a widely-distributed documentary can shift the paradigm; let’s hope Sicko does this, as well.